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At 75th Anniversary, What Can Anne Frank's Diary Teach Today's Teens?

Anne Frank, who died in a concentration camp after hiding in a warehouse behind her father’s office for over two years, is arguably the most famous child of the twentieth century. 

Her diary, first published in Dutch on June 25th, 1947, has been translated into more than 70 languages and reconfigured as a Tony Award-winning Broadway play, an Academy Award-winning film, and a graphic novel. The famous text has inspired teenage diarists, from Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Long Beach, Calif., and is among the books most frequently read by those who are incarcerated. Imprisoned for 27 years, Nelson Mandela read the diary so many times the volume fell apart and he had to copy passages on toilet paper. And after the film version of a young adult novel, “The Fault in Our Stars,” featured the annex as backdrop to the first kiss of two teenagers dying of cancer, the Anne Frank House became the third most visited museum in the Netherlands.

Because it stops abruptly three days before Anne’s arrest, some criticize the diary as an incomplete Holocaust narrative that replaces the horrors of the death camps with adolescent angst. And yet who better than an adolescent to speak to teenagers in our own time of anxiety and uncertainty, of deep political division, of exposed inequity? 

In seeking to address both contemporary antisemitism and racism, the Anne Frank Project at Loyola University New Orleans guides teens in understanding not only the terrible history of the Holocaust, but how to apply those lessons today. The exhibit, “Anne Frank: A History for Today,” was created by the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam thirty years ago; our copy was loaned to us by the Anne Frank House’s American partner, the Anne Frank Center at the University of South Carolina.  The exhibit is designed not only to provide historical facts, but to use peer docents to encourage discussion regarding tolerance, inclusion, racism, and human rights.  

The middle schoolers we train may have heard of Anne Frank or of the Holocaust, but, for them, it is ancient history, long ago and far away. It has no relevance to their lives or to the big challenges in New Orleans, a majority Black city with one of the highest murder rates in the country, where 40% of adults are illiterate, one in six children experiences food insecurity, and gun violence is endemic. If our goal (and it is certainly mine) is to teach not just about but through the Holocaust, to address contemporary challenges, then Anne’s story provides an important point of access.  

 The diary is, indeed, not a story of the death camps, but of life in hiding for a girl persecuted because of her identity. Addressed to “Kitty,” the diary is friend and comfort, a space a 13-year-old girl can explore her turbulent emotions in a time and place of unbelievable stress, anxiety, and, frequently, terror. An active, self-described “chatterbox,” Anne is not able to go outside for over two years. She is forced to remain still and silent from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each workday, unable to flush the only toilet until the workers leave the building.  Confined to 450-square feet with seven other people (including a 50-something dentist who shares her bedroom), Anne expresses the frustrations of communal life in severe constraints, her sense of injured merit at being treated as a child, her longing for true companionship, and, beginning in 1944, her evolving feelings for Peter, in hiding as well.  And, always, there is the fear of being discovered. Amid the quotidian anecdotes of selfishness and claustrophobia, Anne makes vivid how terrifying their life is, particularly at night, when sleep is shattered by bombardments that send Anne, quaking, to her father’s bed, and during two break-ins that underscore their vulnerability.  

Anne’s story takes on new meaning when it is explained to children by people their own age. The peer-led tours provide, of course, a powerful educational experience, but it is the docent training that is truly transformative, as teenagers – Anne Frank’s age – spend several days working together, building community and learning not only to provide tours, but how to be upstanders against prejudice and hate.  

Anne’s diary is powerful because she is “just like us,” or at least, in so many ways, like any adolescent, trying to make sense of a world turned upside down. She speaks to teenagers, quarreling with their parents or feeling misunderstood, teenagers who are hungry, fear gun violence, are despondent because their sexual identity is demonized in contentious public debate.  

Understanding Anne in her larger context guides students in thinking critically and acting justly. She is extraordinary not because no other little girls were in hiding but because, in fact, so many people were hiding for their lives. Even as Jewish people were being dehumanized, demonized, and destroyed, Anne kept a witty, insightful diary that offers powerful witness: each of the 1.5 million murdered Jewish children was a unique individual.

In other words, the foundational lesson of Anne’s diary is the recognition of innate human dignity: to comprehend how the Holocaust could have happened, why genocide continues to happen, and how racist systems continue to be perpetuated, we must each move beyond statistics and the panoramic sweep of events to consider the perspectives, lived experiences, choices, and values of individuals.

Although some claim Anne’s famous affirmation, 'I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart,” can only be read as tragic irony, Anne is also a figure of hope.  Her decision in March 1944, after almost two years in hiding and when she was not yet 15, to rewrite her own diary as a novel to be read by an envisioned postwar audience in a liberated Netherlands, is a remarkable act of spiritual resilience that deserves to be recognized and celebrated, even if the author was murdered before she had a chance to complete the work.

By learning and teaching others Anne’s story, young people can embrace that hope, just as their connection to Anne can be a powerful reminder of the dangers of stereotypes, and that hatred and white supremacy left unchecked lead to death and destruction.  Her diary serves as a clarion call to recognize the innate human dignity not just in Anne, whom we know so well from her own words, but the millions of others killed in the Holocaust,  and the millions of children who are currently refugees, who live in hunger, who live in fear.  Anne’s story, like the Holocaust itself, inspires us to ask, not  “What would I have done?” but rather, “What will I do?”